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“Abandoned America” In Extremis: A Place Where More Than the Buildings Have Been Vacated

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences
Photos and Test by Matthew Christopher, Foreword by James Howard Kunstler
(Jon Glez Publishing)

All photographs in this post are copyright to Matthew Christopher

Regular visitors to this site will know something of my fascination with lost or abandoned places, the main side topic here when I’m not traversing the highways and byways of rock music history and documentary film. The public’s interest level with such deserted locations has grown to the point where the phrase “ruin porn” is now a thing. Photographer Matthew Christopher, in the introduction of this remarkable and sobering book, says he is well aware that his work may be seen as a modern version of the old Picturesque school of aesthetics. But the book’s subtitle lets on right from the cover that there is a lot more afoot here.

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Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). Some may react with an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new shrug but these ruins nevertheless say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.

Back from the late 19th century through to the Second World War era, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

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Speaking of that America in his foreword, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler (author of “The Geography of Nowhere”) says “we have come to regard its institutions as permanent achievements.” Reflecting on Christopher’s pictures of a shuttered 1927 movie palace, Kunstler observes that it “presents a display of middle-class opulence that is nearly unimaginable now. Reflect on what that suggests about the psychology of yesterday’s working people: they believed that they deserved to have beauty in their lives, and the builders agreed to furnish it.” Nowadays, not so much.

After Kunstler’s incisive foreword, Christopher in his introduction speaks of the theoretical connection between these defunct places and human mortality. In fact, he does so for several paragraphs, perhaps as a bit of a defensive counterpoint to the fetishization of this subject matter in some quarters. (In fact, he has given several of these locations assumed names to discourage both scrappers and weekend urban explorers). By the end, though, he is squarely on topic: mourning our “shared heritage,” he sees these buildings, both mighty and graceful, as a reflection of a national character that has been diminished. In its stead, Christopher sees the endless repetition of strip malls and big-box stores with their cheap imported goods proffered to people who are often in reduced circumstances, holding down meager service-sector jobs themselves.

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The Northeast Manual Training School, with its distinctive castle design, was built in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century as an innovative publicly-funded free school in an area with a burgeoning industrial sector. It later went through various name changes (ending up as the Thomas A. Edison High School) and declined along with the industry and the neighborhood. By the time “Abandoned America” was published it had been unceremoniously demolished and replaced with a discount chain store.

This is not mere nostalgia for a robust heavy-industry economy never to return, it’s more for the loss of the wherewithal to even try and have a constructive dialogue about how to adapt to a changing global economy. It’s there in every achingly vivid photograph of a silenced turbine hall, molding lobby in a working-class resort or half-demolished church. An ideal has been abandoned along with the edifice: this is “a book of heartbreaks” as one person put it in “Abandoned America’s” Amazon comments section.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day, the political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. Now, with Republicans having spent decades literally demonizing Democratic leaders while coastal liberals (many feeling safe with their high-tech jobs) speak glibly of “fly-over states,” we’ve come to a pretty pass indeed.

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Some may think of James Howard Kunstler as a gloom-and-doomer when he talks of America as a once-advanced civilization facing a lasting turnaround “toward a loss of complexity, a reduction in the scale of activity, a loss of artistry, and probably the end of many comforts.” It’s that wish for a return to that greatness, without facing up to any of the complexities needed to get there, that looks like an unsolvable problem in this age of anti-intellectualism and safe spaces. After an election season filled with a succession of soul-crushing inanities, the U.S. elected in Donald Trump the exactly wrong person needed, even if his famous slogan played to those sentiments. Spurred on by a frustration with political gridlock and, let’s face it, conservative media outlets that only know how to act on its most pernicious impulses, struggling Middle America elected someone whose one and only skill is exploiting their prejudices and frustrations—-in fact, a man whose narcissism and unpredictability borders on outright insanity. After not hearing a single utterance of true empathy from Trump, even directed at his own voters, it’s safe to say that not only does he not care about any true “social compact”, but he probably has never given it a single thought in his entire perversion of a life. Man, oh fucking man, have we lost our way in the wilderness of of our own self-regard, leaving us with a national psyche as rusted and hollowed out as the places pictured in Matthew Christopher’s elegiac testament.

The Return of the Boston Rock Opera: The Moon is Back in the 7th House

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Dormant for over ten years after a great run in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Boston Rock Opera company is back in a big way. In August they returned from a long hiatus with a three-part David Bowie tribute show at the ONCE ballroom in Somervile, Mass. and this weekend they are back at the same venue with a full theatrical production. Arriving in the middle of the excruciating endurance contest that is this year’s American presidential election season, the BRO’s upcoming rendition of the evergreen hippie musical “Hair” couldn’t have come at a better time. Even if the play’s zealous love-bead idealism is a little dated at this point (it was first produced almost 50 years ago) the book’s more particular message—a righteous plea for understanding, non-violence and harmony free of racial or gender bias—is more relevant than ever. Watch this space for an upcoming review.

Right from the opening song, with its dreamy astrological pronouncement of a coming utopian age, “Hair” was a whole new ball of wax when it graduated from its off-Broadway beginnings to the Great White Way in 1968. In practical terms, it’s pretty clear that we haven’t reached the “Age of Aquarius.” It doesn’t look like “Peace will guide the planets” anytime soon and that instead of “No more falsehoods and derisions” there are people more ready to dish them than ever before. Boston Rock Opera founder (and “Hair” director) Eleanor Ramsay says the musical “Mirrors many of the same racial and social issues that dominate our discourse today.” All the more reason to bask in the exuberance and irreverence of a work that speaks to our better angels in an age when others try to cynically exploit our fears and prejudices.

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The cast of BRO’s production of “Hair.” Photo by Joshua Pickering

The Boston Rock Opera story began in the early Nineties, after an ad hoc performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter weekend at the Middle East nightclub in Cambridge grew into something more. For the next decade, the group amassed a pretty impressive list of conceptual rock productions. There were encore performances of “Superstar” that got ever more professional, culminating in a version that had Gary Cherone, vocalist of Extreme, in the lead role. They also did a full staging of the Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow,” arguably the very first rock opera, as well as Harry Nilsson’s “The Point” and the Small Faces’ “Happiness Stan.” There were original productions such as Tim Robert’s “Crackpot Notion” and album tribute nights: a particular favorite of mine was “Aqualung vs. Billion Dollar Babies.”

Most impressively for me were BRO’s productions of the Kinks’ sprawling political parable “Preservation.” This Ray Davies creation, unfolding over three discs on two different albums (1973-74), tells the cautionary tale of a gangster-like real estate developer who gains power and lays waste to a once-peaceful land. I know, right? Under the guidance of Eleanor Ramsay and local rocker Mick Maldonado, also starring as the devilish Mr. Flash, “Preservation” grew from a free-wheeling club show at the Middle East to the theater at the Massachusetts College of Art. This fully-realized incarnation, which co-starred Letter to Cleo’s Kay Hanley as Flash’s top “floozy,” got the official stamp of approval from Ray Davies himself when the Kinks leader stopped by a rehearsal and offered some feedback.

Works like “Preservation” were rapturously received by the local music community, so it was naturally disappointing when the Boston Rock Opera went quiet soon after a Tenth Anniversary show in 2003. An outsider can only guess at the difficulties of keeping afloat a rock-theater collective in this age of tightened resources and shiny digital distractions. That’s why it has been such a welcome surprise that this valuable local music resource is back with us. Let the sunshine back in.

More info at http://www.rockopera.com

I am everyday “People on Sunday”: Berlin 1929 and the Dawn of the Youth Film

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People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
Directed by Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer/Screenplay by Billy Wilder–1930–74 minutes

The leisurely and lovely “People on Sunday” is considered an early classic of German cinema by many film scholars, critics and lay viewers lucky enough to have come across it. However, this 1930 work (“a film without actors” we are told off the top) has never gained the wider cache of other inter-war films from that country, like “Metropolis” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” It’s not for a lack of pedigree. It was scripted by a 23 year-old Billy Wilder with help from Curt Siodmak and directed by Robert Siodmak, brothers who would also move to America and produce a number of notable thriller and sci-fi movies. The same distinction also holds true for its Austrian-born producer Edgar G. Ulmer, who would go on to make “The Black Cat” and “The Man from Planet X.” The cinematographer was Fred Zinneman, who one day would direct such Hollywood classics like “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity” and “A Man for All Seasons.” This quintet, all in their early to mid-20s, were joined by five equally young non-professionals to act as versions of themselves and shot “People on Sunday” pretty much DIY style over the course of several weekends in Berlin over the summer of 1929. Together, they perhaps unwittingly conjured up the first indie-style “youth” movie, a languid ode to those threshold years where childhood is still close in the rearview mirror but adulthood has not yet been beset by burdening responsibilities (an angle further emphasized by the viewer’s retrospective knowledge of what will happen in Germany in a few years). But all that fades as soon as one is drawn into the film’s gentle orbit. It’s no wonder that an online trailer for the Criterion DVD, where they always give “3 Reasons” as to why you see this release, lists “The timelessness of twenty-somethings” as the first.

“People on Sunday” was not the first time that feature films had centered on the colorful vicissitudes of young adulthood. Silent comedy greats Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton had both recently starred in campus comedies (“The Freshman” and “College,” respectively) but their setting was just a different playing field for the usual hilarious antics and aspirational storylines. The novice filmmakers in the cultural hothouse that was Weimar-era Berlin were coming at things from quite a different angle: they were influenced by both the avant-garde “city symphony” movement of the Twenties as well as the emphasis on naturalism popular then among many artistic types in the capital. Central Berlin, as well as its outlying districts, plays almost as big a role as the people cited in the film’s title, a lovingly and luminously photographed bustling world city of four million souls of which five are singled out. In the opening moments, the film’s nominal lead character (Christl, identified as a real-life film extra) waits somewhat anxiously outside the giant Banhof Zoo Station, perhaps expecting someone who may not show. She is circled by a confident-seeming young man in breeches named Wolfgang, a wine trader by trade. Wolf, as he will fittingly become known, eventually draws her away with an offer to buy her an ice cream. The cute but moody brunette doesn’t take kindly to Wolf’s initial line of questioning (“Nobody stands me up!” Christl declares, wanting to believe it) but soon the two are planning a different rendezvous: a double date of sorts with the two pairs of friends to meet at a recreational area in Berlin’s lake district the next day: Sunday, of course. Christl and Wolfgang part ways with a charming series of awkward handshakes.

We quickly meet the other players in sharp establishing vignettes. Christl’s friend Brigitte is a soulful-looking blonde (a bit of a ringer for “Lost in Translation”-era Scarlet Johansson) who is introduced to us outside her place of work, the Electrola record and music store. She is directing the finishing touches on a window display and is said to have recently sold 150 copies of a 1929 jam called “In a Small Pastry Shop.” Wolf’s pal Erwin is a husky taxi driver who is the only one of the four who is attached: he shares a small apartment with his girlfriend Annie. As opposed to the more lively Erwin, fashion model Annie is a persistent recliner who seemingly only stands to go from the divan to the bed. This is a stalemated couple—-Annie is keen to see the latest Greta Garbo film but is reminded it’s playing until Tuesday—and when she can’t shake her self awake the next morning he takes up Wolf’s offer of a day out.

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Sunday arrives on the wings of an extended montage that owes much to Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 classic “Berlin: Symphony of a City.” The well-dressed day trippers are out in force as pedestrians and transport riders, their comings and goings a whirlwind of trains, cars, omnibuses, grand avenues and signs or advertising hoardings in handsome old-timey fonts. The two pairs meet at Nikolassee station (the girls a bit bashful, the guys pseudo-cocky), a gateway to the lakeside recreation area in Berlin’s expansive semi-rural outskirts. Once they make their way down to the water, and find a place to demurely change into their bathing suits in the tall beach grass, the rest of “People on Sunday” unfolds like a lost dream of summer. The frolicking, the flirting, the lolling about, the music (Brigitte has brought along her portable phonograph), the petty cruelties quickly forgotten—-it’s all here and lovingly rendered by the budding talents behind the camera. During the splashing around, Wolf (unsurprisingly) gets a little forward with Christl, who quickly shows she’s pretty handy with a slap upside the head. Soon after, he turns his attention to Brigitte and the new couple shares a dalliance (and maybe more) in a near-by woodlot while the camera does an artful 360-degree pan of the treetops above them.

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But even this reversal of fortune doesn’t weigh down the overall sunny vibe and almost as much time is spent in a semi-documentary snapshot-in-time of pleasure-seeking folks with whom the quartet circulate. It’s fascinating and awful to consider that in five years Hitler would have full dictatorial powers. Who among the many faces we see at the Nikolassee would want that? The film is not clairvoyant—-in fact, “POS” has a pretty sparse screenplay from Billy Wilder (with few dialogue title cards) especially coming from a guy who would go on to direct and co-write such fully-scripted gems like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot.” But it does have acute observational instincts and it’s hard to discern here how the economic insecurities and shame of defeat in World War I, so exploited by the future Fuhrer, are bothering these people on that Sunday. The only hint may be a cryptic sequence where a solitary man sits and pensively stares at a war memorial.

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A better guess might be that the vast majority of people (on Sunday or otherwise) would prefer to go about their business and otherwise be left the hell alone. (At the end of the film, the principals claim nothing more than an anticipating look forward to the next weekend). That autocratic sociopaths and manipulative power structures that spend so much energy exploiting citizens’ fears, self-doubts and prejudices instead of appealing to their better natures is a universal historical problem and not within the scope of this film’s intentions. But it’s a problem that reaches into even the most supposedly secure democracies, as we see today in the country where the producers of “People of Sunday” emigrated to to help build the world’s most iconic movie industry. The youth culture that would take hold about ten years after WW2 can be seen in embryonic form here. And while “POS” may not be a direct predecessor to all that came later (whether it be “Beach Blanket Bongo” or “Dazed and Confused” or “Reality Bites” or whatever) it certainly was among the first to tap into the spirit of those romanticized and restless years, and did so in such enduring style that you could easily expect to meet these people on the streets of Berlin today.

Reel and Rock at 100–Best of and Beyond

After three years and two months, I’ve reached my 100th post–a hundred fun-filled articles on music, film, pop culture and an occasional eerie side trip to the mysterious world of closed asylums and their multi-layered histories (a new postscript on that subject is at the bottom). To some bloggers, 100 postings in 38 months may not seem like a lot–it amounts to about 2.6 per month. But looking back at my directory while choosing ten a milestone samplings, I am amazed that I ever found the time and energy to write even half of these magazine-style pieces. Not an easy task, as my fellow bloggers would attest to. The frequency of postings has decreased as I get closer to finishing my second self-published book (“Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinematic Journey”) and once that’s out the excerpting of it will give me a much needed breather. In the meantime, a little laurel-resting:

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Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead. My first-ever post, in early March of 2013, was simply finding a home for a piece that I originally tried to sell to Relix magazine. “The Strange, Forgotten History of the Medicine Ball Caravan” is still by far my most viewed piece, maybe having something to do with being an obscure subject I have somewhat to myself and well as for its tangential link to the ever-popular Grateful Dead. Read it here

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A lot of my blogging ideas fell neatly into a three-part format, sometimes inspired by things I had collected over the years, building a series from three of the many Top 30 surveys I had kept from a local AM station that played a key role in the development of my musical sensibilities. See Part One of Transistor Heaven here:

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A recent year-end survey type post, with an obvious tie to the subject of my forthcoming book: Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015 can be seen here:

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Although most of my film reviews here tend to be of non-fiction films, I also do occasionally feature-film articles, esp. if it’s a long-time favorite director of mine, as with Stanley Kubrick. “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now, my 40-year anniversary look back at his 18th-century epic (with its echoes of today’s economic insecurities) is here:

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The last part of my masthead description for this site describes “related adventures on pop culture’s time-and-place continuum.” Writing about music from an angle which closely ties in personal experiences and localities connected with the song’s initial release is a favorite theme, most pronounced in my paean to a certain formative year in Between Patchouli and Punk: In Praise of 1973. Hop in the Way-Back Machine here.

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Although I’m a tireless advocate of documentary filmmaking, I’m no pushover either. Here I wax unenthusiastic (if not downright indignant) over “Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream”, an entry from my Dubious Documentaries series. The haters can hate by clicking here

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The middle entry of my Books That Rock trilogy is my favorite, but if you love music books as much as I do, scan thru them all and you might find one you haven’t considered before. Click thusly

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The Documentary Spotlight category is unsurprisingly my most populated one with 28 posts. I like to pick titles that relate to certain timely societal trends if I can. That was certainly the case with “Best of Enemies,” last year’s vivid look back at the heated exchanges by commentators Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that was part of the TV coverage of the 1968 conventions, an early indicator of today’s hothouse political dialogues in a more “advanced” technological age. Seen here.

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Science fiction films are another side interest of mine that occasionally inspires a post, like when I did a 50th anniversary look back at Jean-Luc Goddard’s futuristic gumshoe adventure in Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50. It’s back-to-the-future time here.

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A viewing of the urban-legend boogeyman documentary “Cropsey” (also in the Documentary Spotlight category) led to my 3-part series The Pale Beyond about the long, complicated—and often scandalous—history of large state-run asylums, most of them now closed. It’s a subject that holds a certain fascination in the public imagination and these abandoned fortress-like institutions are primary destinations for the urban explorer subculture.

The first installment can be seen here. Part 2 focused in part on the very first of these institutions, the Fernald Center (founded in 1848 as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded). I lived in Waltham, Mass. across the road from Fernald in its last years (it officially closed in 2014) and the photos above and below I took recently as twenty of the non-historical buildings on its sprawling campus face demolition. (The state sold back the land to the city of Waltham at a deep discount). Here’s a clip of a TV interview with Boston-area filmmaker W.C. Rogers (aka Bill Rogers) about his 2007 PBS doc “Front Wards, back Wards” with excerpts shown. Rogers’ companion piece to this, “My Uncle Joe” is available in full on You Tube.

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If you enjoy this blog and would like to connect with me on Facebook, please send me a friend request (I’m the Rick Ouellette in Bedford, Mass.) and/or join my FB group Rock Docs. Thanks for reading!

Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” at 40: The Scourge of the 1%, Then & Now

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Forty years ago this month, when your now world-weary blogger was but a whipper-snapper of a high school senior, I arrived early one day into my two-day-a-week journalism class and told the teacher how much I had enjoyed seeing Barry Lyndon, which had recently opened at the local multiplex. “Oh, I saw it, too—it was boring.” The she added, “You’re just saying that because it’s Stanley Kubrick.” I came up with a less-than-sparkling comeback about how she must have missed Kubrick’s cutting critique of 18th-century class structures but she was having none of it. Instead, she compared the film, about an Irish bounder who rises to the top of Georgian high society before his inevitable downfall, to a special issue of National Geographic, featuring photos of European estates that are brought (slightly) to life.

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Maybe I had tipped my hand a couple of months earlier by enthusing about 2001 (within earshot) to a friend in the same class. At any rate, what I had meant to say to her was: “You should have been smart enough to realize that Kubrick is using a 1700s template to warn us a time quickly approaching when all good people of the land will be threatened by a new oligarchy. This will be a ruthless pack of clever little rich bastards who will try to trick us into thinking that we could all be just like them while shredding the social safety net and squashing the once robust middle class that previously served as a buffer against those very same people who want to hold all the money and power.” OK, that’s my 2015 self thinking that, with video “highlights” of the latest Republican debate still festering in my brain.

How White My Shirts Can Be

Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick’s 180-minute, slow-lane cinematic spectacular premiered in December of 1975 and I have re-visited the film many times since, most recently in glorious Blu-ray. It didn’t long for me to find updated symbolism—–well, it did take a while because it really hit home in the movie’s second act, especially in the last of its many dueling scenes. Halfway through film the former Irish villager Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) had reached, in the narrator’s words, the “pitch of prosperity” by marrying the beautiful young widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) or, more accurately, her vast fortune. This doesn’t sit well with her young son, the moody sperm-lottery winner Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), setting off a vicious rivalry that many years later culminates in a pistol duel. Bullingdon wins a coin toss and gets to first shot, but his gun misfires. Told he must hold his ground before receiving a new pistol, Barry fires into the ground (a practice called “deloping” in the arcane world of dueling) and the seconds hopefully ask Bullingdon if he has received “satisfaction.” (This is kind of a hoot, since Vitali bears a strong resemblance to a young Mick Jagger). But of course he hasn’t and with the next shot he essentially blows his stepfather’s leg off—while also symbolically maiming the 99% (thought I to myself). I mean, really?? Shooting your opponent after a deloping was seen as especially vicious back then, even for Bullingdon’s class of people. For fuck’s sake, all he had to say was, “How much is it going to cost me to make this problem—you, namely—go away?” Which is exactly what happens anyway, but only after making his rival a cripple.

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Stanley Kubrick in windbreaker, on location in Ireland.

More on that later, but first a little backstory. This whole confrontation originated from the day when Bullingdon interrupted a music recital with Lady Lyndon at the harpsichord to ripely insult both the commoner Redmond Barry and his mother for taking “this upstart Irishman into your bed.” Well, I could think of at least a few snappy comebacks that would have put Lord Sourpuss back in his place but that just wasn’t done and the vaporous Lady Lyndon (after all, a consenting adult free to marry who she wishes) stays silent while Barry responds with a vicious punch to the small of the back and, in the handheld-camera donnybrook that follows, closes the door on ever getting in with the upper crust, a distinct long shot to begin with. The game is rigged, of course, but Barry had a pretty good run.

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Mad magazine’s take on the recital room brawl and Ryan O’Neal’s unrelenting good looks.

It doesn’t take long for Kubrick to get the machinery of fate kicking into gear. In the opening scene there’s a rainy-day card game with his fetching cousin Nora. While the Chieftains’ exquisite “Woman of Ireland” plays on the soundtrack, the lad is obliged to retrieve a ribbon from the depths of her downy décolletage. His ensuing crush becomes most inconvenient when Nora is subsequently courted by a priggish English army captain who could bring 1500 a year into the struggling family. In several scenes played out in lush scenery beneath the Wicklow Mountains, the still-guileless Redmond (the first phase of Ryan O’Neal’s finely nuanced performance) makes it clear that it’s either him or the flustering blowhard Quinn for Nora’s hand (Quinn is deliciously played by Leonard Rossiter, who also had a brief role in 2001 as the Russian scientist who grills Heywood Floyd).

But money always gets the last word and after his family rigs the inevitable duel Redmond is set up with twenty guineas and a horse (the cost of doing business when we’re talking 1500 a year) and told to go to Dublin “’til matters blow over.” But after an encounter with a captain of a different stripe—-the noted highwayman Capt. Feeney—-he is divested of that sum and is soon enlisted in the army and shipped off to the Seven Year’s War, an aristocratic conflict ever in need of cannon fodder drawn from the lower classes. Against a series of eye-wateringly beautiful backdrops, Redmond Barry’s life plays out in a strangely pre-destined sort of way, an object lesson of being impoverished by a disillusioned and disaffected effort to survive and prosper. The aggressively picturesque estates, country lanes and battlefields dovetailed nicely with my own developing aesthetic preferences, especially as they mirrored certain progressive rock reference points (did you catch my “All Good People” reference from earlier?).

Break the Etiquette

In not-so-quick succession, Redmond ingratiates himself while a soldier in both the British and Prussian armies, lands a job as a spy with the Berlin police, and while at the job goes turncoat, joining up with a fellow Irishman he is supposed to be investigating for cheating at cards with Prussian royalty. After sneaking across the border, the two of them continue card-sharking noblemen in neighboring countries. In these hellish-red gambling rooms (lit only by candlelight for authenticity and filmed with specially-manufactured Carl Zeiss lens), populated with grotesqueries in powdered wigs and beauty spots, there’s no sense of “sticking it to The Man” or anything else subversive, it’s just what they do to get along. When our boy Redmond Barry gets tired of that he makes the key mistake of setting his sights on the lovely cipher who is Lady Lyndon and entering into a world full of people corrupt to the core and uncaring (or even unaware) of the world outside their opulent but suffocating rooms. This inert, closed-shop of privilege is studiously re-created by Kubrick almost to a fault: its deadening disconnect is so realistic that the emptiness is seen to be in the technique and not in the theme.


In this fun, fan-made trailer, Barry is recast as a 18th Century bad-ass taking on the aristocracy single-handed.

Barry Lyndon opened in December of 1975 to the usual mixed critical cacophony that greeted any new film by the maximalist Bronx-born director, who had long since moved to England. “A three-hour slide show for art history majors,” sniffed inveterate Kubrick-hater Pauline Kael, who wasn’t the only one to complain about the film’s languid pace. There were also many writers who admired it and the film’s original trailer protested this praise a bit heavily, knowing that it would be a hard sell for those more used to the glad-handing nature of more conventional Hollywood fare.

What everyone did agree on was the movie’s gorgeous visuals. Barry Lyndon may remain the most formally beautiful film ever, and in early 1976 it won Oscars for cinematography (John Alcott) as well as for Art Direction, Costume Design and Musical Score, while being nominated for Best Picture and Director “Kubrick’s message is that is that people are disgusting, but things are lovely,” Kael continued, the sort of quippy reductionism that seemed to earn her a lot of followers at the time. It should have been at least somewhat obvious that it was the class system that was disgusting and was (or so it seemed) about to be relegated to the dustbin of history by a revealing detail in the film’s drawn-out final scene.

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There are unconfirmed reports that while filming this scene, Stanley Kubrick called out, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of Pauline Kael’s eyes.”

You Say You Want a Revolution

It’s been many years since the spendthrift Barry Lyndon has been out of the family’s life. The terms: an annuity of 500 guineas a year and the understanding that he never return to England. At a desk in the middle of an impossibly large hall that passes for a room, Lady Lyndon sits at a desk with her checkbook out, with Bullingdon and two retainers at her side. Reprised on the soundtrack is the award-winning adaptation of Schubert’s Piano Trio, the stately metronomic keyboard theme counterpointed by the violin which seeks to pull at any heartstrings available. When it comes time to sign her name to the check written out to her banished husband, there is a pause in the music as well as in Lady Lyndon. She stares out in the space as if to wonder what might have been, while Bullingdon looks on cautiously. But it’s only a false alarm and the march-of-time piano starts up again and the stultifying rhythms of aristocratic life continue—at least for the moment: the date on the check is December 1789 and the French Revolution is in full swing just across the English Channel.

Yes, it is a subtle touch by Kubrick and one maybe he thought to enhance with the closing intertitle which notes that the persons you have watched all lived two hundred years ago and that “They are all equal now.” Some commentators thought this was a bit simplistic (Death as the great leveler) or worse that Stanley doesn’t think there is any distinction between his characters. But four months after the newly-empowered French National Assembly passed both the “Decrees Abolishing the Feudal System” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” maybe there was a different idea behind it: that there was a new equality that would provide for a world where one could make a comfortable life without paying manorial obligations (it is fitting that location where the climatic duel was filmed had been a tithe barn) and that people like Redmond Barry could use their skill sets more productively rather than worming their way into an all-powerful an unaccountable upper upper class that would just as soon have your leg off.

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Barry and his mother (Marie Kean) in a scene filmed at Stourhead estate. In my re-boot, they hatch a plan to feed all the hungry children in England by making off with Lady Lyndon’s petty cash box.

Although things got better with the subsequent development of Western democracies, it seems like history has spent the last quarter of a millennium trying to tack back the other way. When the people on the Forbes 400 list have combined wealth exceeding that of the bottom 60% of American households, and when a handful of individuals can, post-Citizens United, openly seek to control the political process, one wonders if the pendulum hasn’t swung back almost all the way back to the days of flintlocks and twenty paces. Oh sure, there’s no formal feudal system preventing clever folks from gaining their fortune and any citizen over 35 can run for president. But at the top it looks a lot like the old government for the aristocracy by the aristocracy. Even Barry Lyndon as the re-imagined pistol-packing, sword-flashing, back-punching, countess-seducing superhero could hardly hope to defeat it. But even with the odds, the historical record of the 1% shows that to end up on the side of the angels, it’s better to fight them than to join them. Kubrick’s deterministic epic may not exactly raise that banner itself, but it will remain one of filmdom’s most exceptional illustrations at just how ugly it can get at the top—-despite all the surface beauty.

“Extraordinary Tales” and Dream Geographies: The animated Poe and Beyond

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Extraordinary Tales
Directed by Raul Garcia–2015–73 minutes

The delectable new animation anthology “Extraordinary Tales,” where five of Edgar Allan Poe’s most notable stories each receive a distinctly different visual treatment, came along at just the right time and place. I had been scoping around for a suitable seasonal post but was at a loss until I heard of the film’s release. I would have settled for a straight review. Then I realized just how fitting that this limited-release title landed at the AMC Loews Boston Common. This 3-story, ersatz movie palace may be home of the $6.50 small popcorn but at least the downtown multiplex has returned movie-going to the center of the city after so many cinema closings there in recent decades. It also overlooks Poe’s hated Frog Pond in Boston’s famous public park across the street and is less than two blocks from the recently-installed Poe statue close to his birthplace. But I had a notion that the geographical connections went deeper than that (often to the point of being subterranean) and all-in-all made for an interesting night out at the pictures. But more on that later; I almost forgot about the film.

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“Extraordinary Tales” was directed by Spanish filmmaker/animator Raul Garcia and produced under the auspices of Film Fund Luxembourg (don’t laugh: little Luxy is a hotbed of animation team-building, check out “Song of the Sea” or “A Town Called Panic” for starters). Each story is boiled down to its core element of terror and dread and narratively speaking the film is a little thin. I imagine that’s to be expected given 21st century attention spans as well the density of 19th century expository writing. (Exhibit A: the 60-word opening sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher”).

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And it is “Usher” which kicks things off after we are introduced to the framing device. This has the spirit of Edgar in the form of the famous Raven ruminating over his literary legacy with various female-figure statues in a curiously beautiful pastel graveyard. The sharp-lined antique-y style of “Usher” suits the grim tale of a family’s doomed bloodline as that old self-imploding greathouse is practically the main character. Christopher Lee’s great portentous narration here turned out to be his last film part before his passing last June.

The next narrator also sweeps in form the pale beyond as a scratchy period recording of Bela Lugosi reciting “The Tell-Tale Heart” is matched to stark B&W imagery in homage to Argentine comics artist Alberto Breccia. Ben-Day dots and colored overlays define the look of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” wherein an exercise in applied hypnotics goes way off the rails. The old warhorse “The Pit and the Pendulum” gets the quasi-realist look of an Xbox game and a Guillermo del Toro narration, the mechanics of the pendulum are especially well represented.

The concluding “Masque of the Red Death” may be the cream of the crop. The vibrant hues of its oil-on-canvas style (with visible brush strokes) are a feast for the eyes. The literal feasting—and dancing, card-playing and sexual byplay—of the royal partygoers, who cannot keep the Black Death at bay is portrayed without narration or (except for a couple of lines voiced by Roger Corman) dialogue. The slightly overexcited (universal) desire to partake of life’s rich pageant before death (Black or otherwise) comes a-calling was understandable enough without words.

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DREAM GEOGRAPHIES

When these cinematic pleasantries concluded, I stepped out to a clear late October night and crossed into the Common, with Poe’s repeated motif of falling or being trapped underneath fresh in my mind. There’s the Usher mansion collapsing into an abyss, the prisoner imagining a drop into a bottomless pit before facing the pendulum and the master with the dodgy eyeball getting sectioned off below the floorboards in “Tell-Tale Heart.” As Tom Waits once had it “There’s a world going on underground.” Between the Poe plaque at the corner of Boylston St. and what was once the top of Poe-birthplace Carver St. (now a service alley named Poe Way) and the AMC Loews there are several places that would make great locales for this man’s stories. There’s the trench-like row of crypts in the Central Burying Ground (a one-stop shop for all you “Premature Burial” needs!), Steinert Hall, a recital auditorium four stories below the Steinway store (built by the piano-making clan in 1896 but closed to the public since 1942) and an urban-legend pedestrian tunnel from the tiny Boylston subway station possibly up to the Schubert theater two blocks away.

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It was Edgar Allan Poe’s literary successor H.P. Lovecraft that really put this macabre Ley-line notion into sharp relief. He once said that “there are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths.” While in real life this is not very comforting to acknowledge, in the aesthetic world it is super cool. In Lovecraft’s short story “Pickman’s Model,” the titular painter is banished from the upper-crust Boston Arts Club when his subject matter gets a little too hairy for the “Beacon St. tea-table” crowd. To wit: “There was a study called “Subway Accidents” in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” (And you thought the T was bad nowadays). Those monsters, who may not be imaginary in the context of the tale, supposedly roam around in an extensive network of tunnels that fan out under central Boston from an opening in Pickman’s decrepit North End building, from where the artist muses, “these ancient places are dreaming gorgeously and overflowing with wonder and terror and escapes from the commonplace.” No kidding, right?

The dreaming part of that statement certainly resonates with me. I can look at that block of Tremont St. and see the AMC Loews and a vestige of the façade of the wax museum that used to be next door and the great hulk of the Masonic Temple on the corner of Boylston (I’d love to get a look at their sub-basement!) but a shade behind it all is a reoccurring dream landscape that I have visited periodically for decades. This REM wonderland is a densely-packed district of curio shops, chop suey stalls, burlesque theaters, pinball parlors and Art Deco shopping arcades–an urban archetype of the collective unconscious. Maybe writing about will bring it back because I haven’t landed there in over a year.

Walking back to my car, I passed by the Poe statue again, the morbid and magnificent author seemingly striding as quick as he can out of town (with his trusty Raven by his side) a cold shoulder turned to the dreaded “Frog-Pondians” of the city of his birth. In the “Extraordinary Tales” postscript he petitions for immortality in view of the six-foot hole. Mission Accomplished. Nowadays, our Subterranean Homesick Edgar is as iconic and indispensable in October as Charles Dickens is in December with “A Christmas Carol.” We can almost walk along beside him, dreaming gorgeously, one step ahead of the black zone at all times.

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A Reel and Rock Summer Break

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It’s blog break time. When I return, I’ll have Part 2 of my “Books That Rock” article, a re-consideration of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” on its 40th anniversary and more of my “We’ve All Gone Solo” series, among other items. For those readers interested in music documentaries, a pretty hashed-over subject on this blog, feel free to visit my Facebook group called “Rock Docs” and join up if so inclined. Here is the link:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/rockdocumentary/

Currently, I have posted a clip from Penny Woolcock’s 2012 documentary “From the Sea to the Land Beyond” not a rock doc per se, but with a excellent soundtrack by the band British Sea Power. This compilation of early English documentary footage with that music makes a beautiful tribute to late summer. Until then… happy viewing and listening from Reel and Rock.

Rick Ouellette

Sex and Sensibility: “The Girl-Getters” is the Lost Classic of British Beat Cinema

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The Girl-Getters (a.k.a. “The System”)
Directed by Michael Winner—1964—93 minutes
Starring Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Jane Merrow, Barbara Ferris, Julia Foster & Harry Andrews

The under-recognized Michael Winner film “The System” represents a great lost missing link in the evolution of British cinema. Re-named “The Girl-Getters” for the American market and released just three months after “A Hard Day’s Night,” it rings out with the ascendant spirit of the youth films just coming into vogue. But it still owed a debt to the so-called “kitchen sink” dramas of the late 50s and early 60s, those gritty films like “A Taste of Honey,” “This Sporting Life” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” that featured characters hemmed in by class boundaries, societal expectations and (more often than not) unexpected pregnancies. A 26 year-old Oliver Reed stars as Tinker, a wily beach photographer and ladies’ man in a seaside holiday town on England’s south coast. He heads up a gaggle of young men who have developed “The System” to maximize their success rate in the time-honored British endeavor known as “pulling the birds.”

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The gang take inventory of the “finches.”

Right out of the gate, “The Girl-Getters” is a movie to savor. The shimmering B&W cinematography is by a talented up-and-comer named Nicolas Roeg. To the nifty uptempo strains of the Searcher’s theme song, we watch the guys speeding around in their roofless, backfiring jalopy. They drive to a neighboring train station to drop off a couple of their number so the incoming young ladies can be chatted up on the train before it even arrives in town. (“Get into the System” the Searchers sing, or at the end of the line “you’re alone”). Over the last two weeks of August, the gang and a rotating cast of the fairer sex will play out the summertime rituals on the bright-white promenade, in the shadows under the pleasure pier and inside the dancehalls and snack bars—as well up in Tinker’s attic loft. Although it’s not hard to guess that narrative complications will scratch up the film’s carefree surface, “The Girl-Getters” never gets as low as the often-embittered kitchen sinkers. Realistic rites of passage have replaced tragic pitfalls on the road to adulthood.

A lot of credit to the film’s success goes to Mr. Reed’s finely-tuned performance as the rakish but astute (even philosophical) Tinker. With none of the coarse mannerisms that sometimes dragged down future roles, Reed’s broad, handsome face and piercing bright eyes are at the center of most every scene. He meets his match in level-headed society girl Nicola (Jane Merrow), a stunning brunette fashion model who’s in town to check in with her aristocratic father and have some fun between assignments. Many movies would exxagerate the unlikely pairing: Nicola is all that: she’s got the looks, personality, money and use of her dad’s Buick Riviera. Tinker may be boss of the boardwalk but it’s a short season and the specter of a long, lean winter hangs over the locals whose credo is (according to him) “take what you can from the visitors, gather nuts against the hard winter.” But Winner’s naturalistic direction and Peter Draper’s clear-eyed script won’t allow for easy clichés. The pair’s bubble-blowing interlude and demure way of asking each other’s age hint at their relative innocence even as adult experiences beckon. They see in each other a possible way forward: for Tinker, Nicola may be a catalyst to get out of his provincial rut and better himself professionally in London; in Tinker, Nicola sees a native intelligence perhaps preferable to the entitled snobbery of her male friends back at the palm court.

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It was not all marketing hot air when posters for “The Girl-Getters” proclaimed it was “an adult film for teenagers and a teenage film for adults.” Maybe that’s because the cast, brimming with the youthful energy typified by the rise of the Beatles, fell neatly in between those two broad demographics. A fresh-faced David Hemmings, as the newest addition to the boy’s club, is introduced to the ways of the “grockles” (tourists) and the inner workings of The System, but by end is planning on ways of improving it. Barbara Ferris does a sympathetic turn as the local would-be girlfriend of Tinker and the wonderful Julia Foster makes a brief but winning appearance as a party girl all too ready to offer Tinker the dreaded domestic arrangement offer after a brief fling. (I was a little young for this film during its brief American theatrical run, but developed a mad crush on Julia three years later in 1967 when she was the female lead in the Tommy Steele musical “Half a Sixpence.”) Veteran British hard-guy actor Harry Andrews steps up as the “Establishment” figure, playing Tinker’s boss, the no-nonsense proprietor of the Sunny Snaps photo lab.

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A grockle’s eye view of Tinker

Michael Winner certainly deserves credit for organizing this excellent cast and script into a time-tested end product that totally avoids the silliness that infected slightly later swinging British Beat Cinema entries like “The Knack” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” But Winner (who died in 2013) was more of a journeyman director probably most remembered for the indefensible “Death Wish” series he would do with Charles Bronson. The real production star is Nicolas Roeg. His photography during Tinker and Nicola’s romantic idyll on a remote cliff-backed beach is one of my favorite things ever by him, comparable to Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 young-love classic “Summer with Monika.” It is on this same scenic beachfront (with its abandoned hamlet) where the film ends. One of Tinker’s men has gotten himself married (as usual in these films, a pregnancy is involved) and the young locals combine an end-of-the-season bonfire with a strange, primal ritual involving bridge-and-groom effigies and scarifying masks. Instead, of the hopeless undertow that pulls down supposedly “carefree” movies like “Georgy Girl,” this group looks like they are smoking out the demons and putting trust in their collective friendship. The morning after, as Tinker gives Nicola a “bye-for-now” wave and joins his pals (both male and female) for one last frolic on the sand, you are given hope in a sensible implied outcome. These young people may have shaken off the shackles of confining post-war British mores, but neither do they look like they are going to be bamboozled by the illusions of a totally-liberated Sixties mindset. You expect that they’ll be working a sensible middle path to a place where things will end up just fine.

My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” (1964-2014) will be released later this year.

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. See the link below to see a list of the other 90 amazing entries spanning the eras from the beginning of cinema up to 1975…

http://aurorasginjoint.com/2015/06/27/the-classic-movie-history-project-presents-the-golden-age/

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Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50

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Alphaville
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard–1965–98 minutes

“Tarzan vs. IBM” was the cheeky working title Jean-Luc Godard gave to his dystopian tale of a technocratic dictatorship that was released in 1965 as “Alphaville.” The enfant terrible of French New Wave cinema was still at a phase in his career, five years after his breakout film “Breathless”, where his aesthetics were accessible enough to produce an entertaining movie that also caught you up in an intellectual brainstorm whose message—that mankind is apt to surrender his self-determination in the face of its own technological bedazzlement—was pertinent then and even more vital today. Of course, it may seem silly to anyone born after a certain period (1980?) to think we need rescuing from a vine-swinging hero in view of all the great advances the Information Age has afforded. But in a way, the domination of a digitally-based power structure has been achieved in the half-century since by the deployment of a different battle plan. Instead of banning emotions like the authorities do in Alphaville, it turned out to be easier to indulge people’s vanity instead. The omnipotent supercomputer at the center of Godard’s film (who calculates “so that failure is impossible”) endlessly spouts off the most numbing blandishments this side of Mark Zuckerberg.

Of course, technology, like a lot of things, is what you make of it. It’s not as if Godard is averse to keeping up with technical advances in his chosen medium. The director is now 84 and recently released a dazzling (if typically uncompromising) 3D film called “Goodbye to Language” shot on various devices including a GoPro and a smartphone. But it was a half-century ago this year, some two decades before personal computers, where Godard first divined the potential grave errors of relying too heavily on one’s own machines. He cast American expat actor Eddie Constantine as a secret agent who infiltrates this nocturnal city-state to capture Professor von Braun, a renegade atomic scientist who has defected from the rival “Outlands”. Constantine retained the delightful character name of Lemmy Caution, a role he had played in a series of French pulp films. But this was a whole other ball of wax. Godard concocted a heady brew of hard-boiled detective plot points and science fiction iconography, with an extra-added sprinkling of philosophy and romantic poetry. Using no special sets, he and his go-to cinematographer Raoul Coutard created a fantastic futuristic city-state by shooting in the modern high-rise districts of Paris, a luminous B&W world of bleak boulevards, stark hotel interiors, sterile government ministries and the labyrinth of giant mainframes that culminate in the inner sanctum of Alpha 60, whose “1.7 billion nerve centers” of remorseless logic has been put to use in creating an acquiescent and nearly robotic population.

Constantine, with his gruff mannerisms and deadpan humor, keeps the film light on its feet even during the passages of weighty intellectualizing. An unpredictable rugged individual going up against mechanized conformity; it’s a tailor-made mission for the trenchcoated Caution, whose surname is quite the misnomer. Posing as a journalist, he blows into town, brushing off the scripted niceities of the hotel staff and resisting the advances of his assigned “seductress third-class” (“I can find my own dames”) and scorning the directive to report his presence with the proper authorities. He does not find it so easy to resist when his official escort around Alphaville turns out to be Natasha von Braun (Anna Karina), a cat-like beauty who is the daughter of the turncoat professor. Like other Alphaville residents, she has a serial number branded on the back of her neck and an impulse to say things like “I’m very well, thanks for asking” when no one is asking. But Lemmy has a hunch that in view of her parentage, Natasha may yet hold memories of pre-brainwashed times in the Outlands. This means she could be turned into a useful ally in infiltrating Alphaville’s central command and will also give him ample time to fall in love with her.

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Ah yes, “love.” Just one of many words that the state’s leaders have banished, along with “conscience” and “tenderness” and many others in the expected Orwellian fashion. The film turns on Karina’s nuanced performance, as she slowly awakens to possibilities beyond Alphaville’s remorseless edicts. Her soulful sphinx gaze and delicate body language are of course rigorously recorded by Goddard (they were married at the time but soon to be separated) and makes for a curious contrast with the craggy-faced, trigger-happy Lemmy Caution. It’s all part of the film’s crazy-quilt sensibility, one minutes he’s blasting away at the secret police with his trusty firearm (which, along with his Instamatic camera, never seems to need re-loading) and the next he’s producing a book of romantic poetry to see how Natasha will respond.

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But unlike later Godard films, the literary and political points don’t overwhelm. The transgressions of the Alphaville power elite are revealed gradually, even humorously. (Lemmy’s observation that “Everything that’s weird is normal in this whore of a city” is one of my all-time gumshoe one-liners). After a meet-up with one of his fellow operatives (a serio-comic turn by Akim Tamiroff) goes awry, he’s invited by Natasha to a gala at the Institute of General Semantics. This is capped off by a memorable firing squad scene at an indoor pool where emotion-loving dissidents are led out onto diving boards to share some final thoughts before being gunned down. It’s after this grim ceremony that Caution makes his first (unsuccessful) grab at the Professor, after which he is interrogated by Alpha 60, whose croaking basso profundo voice is by now well known to the viewer.

In two absorbing scenes, Lemmy Caution goes mano a machino with Alpha 60 and if any proof was needed that venal authoritarianism does not require some raving Hitler-type, here it is. It’s not just that Alpha’s “face” bears a strange resemblance to a malfunctioning box fan. It calmly declares that the essence of both capitalism and communism “is not an evil volition to subject their peoples… but the natural ambition of any organization to plan all its actions.” Of course, how could anything be less evil? This logic continues to suggest that the proper course in all matters is simply the endless self-perpetuation of all that favors oneself regardless of anything as quaint as the “common good.” So nowadays we have untouchable “too big to fail” financial institutions that run themselves like criminal syndicates, spying agencies that can snoop in on everyone to prevent a tiny number of wrongdoers, political parties that are openly in the bag to corporate interests and glitzy social-media behemoths that distract and flatter us all the way to the end of privacy. I could go on and so could you. Or at least some of you could, as younger generations seem to see little problem with the supremacy of technology over any of its potential pitfalls. We have developed a dislike of complexity just as the world has become insanely complex, making modern-day acquiescence to a permanent status quo seem more of a slow-motion crawl than the result of heavy-handed 1984-type rulers as seen in Godard’s film.

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“I’m too old to argue, so I shoot”—Lemmy Caution

Here, there is more of an immediate concern, as the paranoiac supercomputer and its minions prepare for an atomic attack on the Outlands. “It is logical to condemn you to death” announces Alpha 60 to Monsieur Caution but it may have proved to be not quite powerful enough for our humble secret agent. With a big FU to those who would “play the world when technical power is the only act in their repertoire”, Lemmy grabs Natasha and blasts his way out of town, hopefully one step ahead of the expected counter-attack. It may not be too late for us either, but I think we all need a little of that derring-do—or at least more critical thinking—so our own “journey to the end of night” ends not with more night but as in “Alphaville” with a hint of a new dawn.

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Definitive gaze: Godard and Anna Karina on the set of “Alphaville”

“Good bye to Language” may be nearing its arthouse run in 3D but remains recommended for adventurous filmgoers. You may come out of the film a little cross-eyed (his visual bag of tricks include parallax images, double exposure 3D and extreme color saturation) but you may also feel challenged or even inspired, a far different prerogative than most 3D Hollywood fare, where the CGI tail is often seen wagging the movie dog.

The Two Sides of 1967 by Joe S. Harrington

(After nearly two years in exsistence, Reel and Rock has its first guest-written post! Joe S. Harrington is the author of “Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll” [previously recommended in my “Books That Rock Pt. One” post] and was editor of the former Kapital Ink magazine. When I wrote a column on rock documentaries for KI, I was in the habit of sending edit-defying articles of a few thousand words each and now Joe has returned the favor. Visuals and captions by “Ed.” Enjoy!–Rick Ouellette)

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What more could possibly be said about the Beatles? And for that matter, the Velvet Underground? The Beatles are like the “learner’s manual” of rock n’ roll—they covered every discernible style, and did it all first. The Velvets, on the other hand, represent the dark underbelly of rock, from whence emerged a Cause and a Way of Life. It’s just proof of something that’s been said a million times about the VU: their influence didn’t really take hold until years later. So even though they were contemporaries of the Beatles, what they were doing was so far ahead of its time that the influence of it wouldn’t be felt or years, or even decades. So while the Beatles were totally of the ‘60s, the Velvets transcended it, making them the “better” group, right? But maybe that’s because the influence of the Beatles is so profound and well-engrained that it doesn’t even need to be clarified—which is what I’ve been forced to reconsider, having read Ian McDonald’s epic Revolution in the Head, and hence actually listened to the Beatles, album-by-album, for the first time in decades.

This aural re-evaluation ultimately led me to “lend my ears” to that most sacred of sacred cows, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which has suffered so much overkill that genuine proponents like Rolling Stone, in their ultimate anti-hip measure, only rated it FOUR stars in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, published in 1978. The point being, what was once considered “the greatest rock n’ roll album” of all time, in just a decade had come to be seen as sadly dated, a curio of a bygone era, and somehow quaint in its timeliness. At the same time, to demonstrate how much the critical consensus had changed since the ‘60s, in the same volume, The Velvet Underground & Nico pulled five stars. With the rise of punk—viewed by critics as the Velvets’ progeny—esteem for the VU had only risen and they were seen as innovators, whereas the Beatles, as adventurous as their mid-sixties music had been, now had their lot lumped with the bastions of “classic rock,” beloved by FM rock listeners, but considered passe by hipsters.

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J & P, moments after learning the results of a Hipster Popularity Contest, where they went up against Alex Chilton and Chris Bell

In the ‘80s, as the post-modern mentality crept in, the Beatles, given their universal mainstream appeal, were short-changed in favor of not only the Beach Boys but far lesser groups like Big Star. But these things are cyclical—first Yoko Ono was acknowledged as kind of a godmother figure to both new wave and Riot Grrl, and then it was the Scorsese documentary about George Harrison, but eventually the Beatles came back into favor…but they’ve been “going in and out of style,” as they themselves said on Sgt. Pepper, for so long that, at this point, all such arguments are moot, because as the years go by the whole ERA gets more compressed—hence the Beatles have much more in common, in the long run, with, say, the Ramones or even Metallica than any of them have with Taylor Swift. At a certain point there came a time, especially as a barometer of the Zeitgeist, when music just didn’t matter anymore. But it can be argued that the Beatles—along with Dylan, the Stones and all the rest—ultimately represent the moment when music did begin to matter, and that’s why, ultimately, the Beatles and Velvet Underground have a lot more in common than critics and fans may have surmised back in rock’s golden age.

Make no mistake, the Beatles were not a boy-band, or a pop artifice—they had some of that in their music, but by the time they recorded, in 1962 (not counting a few odd recordings a year or so before as a backing band), they were a seasoned performing unit in a way that few groups who followed them could match, simply because the Beatles opened the floodgates for those groups. The Beatles not only had to prove themselves, they had to prove the worth and merits of the whole style of music—rock n’ roll—because their embrace of such was simply unprecedented. Therefore, by the time the other great groups of the ‘60s emerged—the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Velvets, the Byrds, the Doors, the Airplane, the Who, Zappa, etc.—they didn’t need to toil away playing the dingy bars of Hamburg (or its equivalents) for more than six months whereas the Beatles had been doing it for six years. Sure, there are arguments that those bands, given their relative youth and inexperience, caught up—and even surpassed—the Beatles in record time.

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The Velvet Underground during their open enrollment period

That included the Velvets—but don’t think they weren’t hip to the Beatles: Lou Reed played a hollow-bodied Gretsch guitar like George Harrison and on the flexi disc that came with Index magazine in 1967, which featured a conversation recorded at Andy Warhol’s Factory just after the Velvets’ first album came out—and, consequently, Sgt. Pepper as well—one hears Nico mimicking “Good Morning, Good Morning”…not sarcastically either, but just because that’s what everybody was doing in the Summer of ’67, because the album was ever-present. In other words, even though the Velvets, who could loosely be considered “rivals” with the Beatles, had just put out their own LP, they couldn’t get out from under the shadows of Sgt. Pepper. After all, it was Number One for fifteen weeks—virtually the entire summer of ’67—and, other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, how many other albums can you say that about?

Even as late as 1970, the Velvets’ Sterling Morrison gave an interview to Fusion magazine where he actually venerated Sgt. Pepper in favor of Frank Zappa’s parody of it, We’re Only In It for the Money: “Let me see him come out with something as good as Sgt. Pepper. What Zappa saw in Sgt. Pepper was something good which showed real perception and talent, and lacking these attributes himself, he decided to do something else, and make fun of it. Is there anything on We’re Only in It for the Money that even remotely compares to the original?” Given this evidence, it’s clear that it wasn’t the Beatles whom the Velvets considered rivals, but the California groups like the Mothers and Grateful Dead.

Zappamoney2

I’m more of a “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” guy, anyway.

In fact, as rock rolls on, it becomes clearer that perhaps the two most enduring bands of the entire rock n’ roll era are the Beatles and the Velvets. Don’t believe me? Just ask Robert Christgau, who proclaimed the VU “the number three band of the sixties” after, of course, the Beatles and James Brown & His Famous Flames. Now JB is sacrosanct, irrefutable…where would Gospel, Soul, Funk, Disco, Hip Hop and Rap be without the Godfather of Soul? But it’s not rock, it’s R&B, and therefore in a separate category. The Velvets, on the other hand, format-wise, are the same as the Beatles—guitar/bass/drums—but both groups dabbled with non-rock motifs: the Beatles with symphony orchestras and the Velvets with electric viola. And both had high-art aspirations, not the least of which was they employed actual artists to design their album covers, instead of leaving it to the record company. Therefore you could have the infamous Andy Warhol banana on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Klaus Voorman’s black-and-white collage adorning the Beatles’ Revolver, the album that predated Sgt. Pepper. By the time of Pepper, standards were being raised even higher by Michael Cooper’s elaborate cover design, and the fact the Beatles actually printed the lyrics on the back to assert that Lennon and McCartney warranted serious consideration as “composers.” And although almost no-one knew it at the time, and the Velvets didn’t print the lyrics on their album, a future generation of critics would assert much the same thing about Lou Reed.

Add to that the fact that both Sgt. Pepper and the Velvets’ first album were among the first rock LPs to be issued with a gatefold, extremely rare for rock albums at the time—the thought being the Powers That Be at the record companies didn’t want to waste the cardboard on mindless fodder. But the Beatles being the Beatles, and the Velvets with the Warhol connection, obviously warranted a higher standard from their respective labels (only Frank Zappa, who recorded for the same label as the Velvets—Verve, who’d previously specialized in jazz—was accorded the same dignity).

velvet inner gatefold

There were precedents for this kind of maturation in rock—not only Zappa but the Beach Boys of Pet Sounds (both cited by the Beatles as influences on Sgt. Pepper). But compared to the breakthroughs established by both the Beatles and Velvet Underground in 1967—even though they were worlds apart—such early innovators can be seen as merely stepping stones. And the Stones, although their early R&B-based work and even proto-psychedelic stuff can be seen as superb, didn’t really surpass the Beatles until the great string of albums beginning with Beggar’s Banquet and culminating with Exile on Main Street—by which time both the Beatles and Velvet Underground were no more.

Released within three months of one another in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s and the Banana album represented the two social and sonic spheres of the sixties—the Beatles were light, optimistic, effervescent; the Velvets were dark, foreboding, luminescent. It’s hard to say which one had the most influence, but it’s obvious the Beatles’ influence was more immediate and the Velvets’ was more latent. What’s obvious, though, is that, taken together, they are the two most influential groups of their time—and hence any time, because, despite punk, it’s doubtful, at this point, in terms of rock music, the ‘60s is ever going to be surpassed.

1967 was the apex of that renaissance. Surely there will never be another year in which the possibilities of rock music seemed so limitless, before it became clouded by irony and pretention. Both the Velvets and the Beatles epitomized rock’s giant breakthrough as an art-form, and Sgt. Pepper and The Velvet Underground & Nico were both high water marks of the revolution—but whereas the Beatles used a more ornate style to reflect rock’s increasing maturity, the Velvets, in stark contrast, produced an almost primitive sound. Despite the stylistic differences, however, both groups shared similar concerns (which admittedly were in the air at the time). Themes of alienation, for instance, are reflected in both Pepper’s “She’s Leaving Home” and the Banana Album’s “All Tomorrow Parties.” Both albums are heavily drug-influenced, and while something like John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is nowhere near as blatant as Lou Reed’s “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” it probably turned more people onto acid than any similar song of the era (and John would have his own junk-song a couple years later in the form of “Cold Turkey’). That’s one of the things McDonald makes clear in his book—the Beatles greatest importance was as the Uber-messengers of not just rock, and psychedelia, but the avant-garde. And the Velvets of course benefited from this, being an “art band” and all.

Paul McCartney in studio with George Martin

Thanks, George, we’ll take it from here.

Noise was another integral element of the new, freer music, in both jazz and rock, and perhaps the first aspect of the Velvets to be fully grasped by future generations was this atonal quality. The Velvets were the first band, save perhaps the Who, to embrace the concept, even calling an early track “Noise.” And while the Beatles are more universally remembered for their melodic qualities, by 1968, when the whole world seemed to be in a state of chaotic dissonance, even the Beatles were pushing the sonic envelope with what could loosely be called “noise experiments”—including of course the infamous “Revolution 9” on the White Album, 8 minutes of audio mélange that, as McDonald acknowledged, became the most widely-disseminated “avant garde” document, in any art form, ever. As so often happened with the Beatles, they may not have come up with the idea, but their enormous popularity guaranteed that such concepts—ones first promulgated by the actual bastions of the avant-garde like Warhol and John Cage (and, for that matter, Yoko Ono)—would reach a much wider audience.

Speaking of noise, certainly John Lennon’s embrace of atonality in the later stages of the Beatles—from audio pastiches like “Revolution 9” and Two Virgins to the raunchy and dissonant guitar playing on tracks like “Cambridge 1969” on Life with the Lions and the live version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” on Live Peace in Toronto—owe a lot more to the Velvets’ type of pure-noise exorcisms than the more sculpted textures of the Who and Jimi Hendrix.

While everyone was aware of the Beatles, there’s a good chance the Beatles were aware of the Velvet Underground as well. Mick and Keith already copped to the influence of the VU on “Stray Cat Blues,” and it’s a known fact that, in those days, Paul McCartney was an avid champion of the underground (sometimes even in the philanthropic sense, such as his support for the International Times or the Monterey Pop Festival). In the spring of ’67, when Andy Warhol was trying to bring Chelsea Girls to Europe, he and his entourage actually visited Paul McCartney at his home in London right around the time of Sgt. Pepper. There’s a video on YouTube, dating from ’67 or so, where Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s director, talks about how, at the time, Paul McCartney, like just about everyone else in those days, was experimenting with underground movies (which Morrissey refers to as “psychedelic”). There’s even the possibility that, right before he died, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, was thinking about managing the Velvets!


Says “factory interview” but took place in England–Ed.

According to Danny Fields in the book Uptight (pg 84): “I had given Brian the banana album and one night I was with Lou at Max’s and Brian came in briefly. He said he was on his way uptown. I went outside to his limousine with him and then I said, ‘wait a minute I have an idea.’ And ran back in and said to Lou, ‘This is your big chance to talk to Brian Epstein.’ He got in the car but there was like total silence because they were both too proud to say anything to each other. Finally Brian leaned over and said ‘Danny recommended this album to me and I took it to Mexico with my lover. It was the only album we had there. We rented a phonograph, but we couldn’t get any more albums, so we listened to it day and night on the beach in Acapulco. Consequently my memory of the whole week in paradise was your album.’”

Of course if Brian Epstein was listening to the Velvets’ first album there’s a pretty good chance the Beatles themselves had caught wind of it. Ironically, it was Brian’s death in 1967, just a couple months after Sgt. Pepper was released, that finally liberated the Beatles from their former teen-pop image…which is just another way of saying, with rock’s increasing maturity, the Beatles were no longer necessarily “leading” the movement, but increasingly were just one more hue in its ever-expanding palette. And it can be argued that, once that happened, it was inevitable that the Beatles—and hence the whole movement—would fragment. Which is why, in the ensuing years, the Velvets, who’d symbolized this individualistic, non-unifying quality from the beginning—cynicism, if you will—would be increasingly looked upon as being as important, if not more so, than the Beatles (a premise that would’ve seemed unthinkable in 1967). It should be noted also that Richard Hamilton, the artist who designed the blank cover for the White Album—undoubtedly the Beatles’ most experimental and musically-varied opus—actually appeared in Warhol’s film, Kiss, in 1964. In the ‘60s, the worlds of art, music, media and graphic design were all converging. The Beatles were at the forefront of it, but the point is, so was the Velvet Underground

And not everybody at the time favored the Beatles either—critic Richard Goldstein, who’s somewhat praise-worthy article in the Village Voice about the Velvets actually made the press blurbs reprinted on the sleeve of the banana album, famously panned Sgt. Pepper when it was released (making him, admittedly, the lone dissenter at the time). It’s clear that, in 1967, both Pepper and the VU & Nico were pointing the way towards the future; but there was no shortage of groundbreaking albums released that year, from the first albums by Cream, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic and the Doors to the Mothers’ Absolutely Free, Love’s Forever Changes, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, After Bathing at Baxter’s by the Jefferson Airplane, the debuts of Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead, the 13th Floor Elevators’ Easter Everywhere, the Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the Who Sell Out, There Are But Four Small Faces, Younger than Yesterday by the Byrds, Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and Nico’s own Chelsea Girls to name but a few. Changes were in the air—yes, of the “forever” variety—and while it’s tough to say whether ’67 was the “best” year that rock will ever know, it’s clear that it was the turning point. And if this is true, two albums clearly stand out as definitive: Sgt. Pepper and the Velvets’ first.

velvet crayon
Those were the days

Despite other similarities between the two groups—such as the fact they were both managed by prominent older gay men and they both sacked their original drummers—the worlds of the Velvet Underground and the Beatles were still universes apart in 1967. And although, in post-modern terms, there’s a tendency to view the Velvets’ album as having even greater impact than Sgt. Pepper, in critics’ polls conducted over the years, both albums are almost always in the Top 20. For example, in the VH1 poll conducted in 2001, Pepper comes in at Number Nine, and the VU & Nico at Number Nineteen. In 2003, Rolling Stone placed Pepper at Number One of all time, with the Banana Album at Number Thirteen. The NME, on the other hand, in a more recent Top 500—in which the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead pulled number one—the Velvets’ debut was at Number Five and Sgt. Pepper’s was relegated to the 87th spot (although Revolver was Number Two). But that’s just another example of post-modern revisionism (which the Brits are champs at). For another more Anglo-centric view there was Paul Gambacinni’s groundbreaking 1977 Top 200 Albums, where Sgt. Pepper copped the Numero Uno spot, and the Velvets’ first album placed at Number 14. Ten years later, in the book’s revised edition, although Pepper still sat firmly at the top spot, the Velvets had risen to Number Seven.

More telling is a more recent poll by Rolling Stone supposedly entailing the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time where they proclaim the first Velvets album “the most prophetic album ever made.” Which is somewhat closer to the truth—and goes back to Ian McDonald’s original premise that the Beatles were so much a product of their time—while at the same time DEFINING it–that it became almost impossible for them to transcend it (and not be judged totally within the context of it). Sgt. Pepper was such a cataclysmic event when it was released in the Summer of Love that it honestly had nowhere to go but down in terms of esteem in the ensuing decades. The Velvets, on the other hand, were so underground in their time that it took 25 years for their full impact to be assimilated. If the Beatles were the most influential band of the ‘60s, the VU were clearly the most influential band of the ‘80s—and that influence continued to grow up until a few years ago, with the Strokes being yet another band who took their cue from the Velvets, following in the tradition of the Modern Lovers, Feelies, Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth, Gang of Four, Jesus & Mary Chain, you name it.

It really doesn’t have to be decided which one is “better” because ultimately it can’t be. But one thing remains clear—in the minds of music fans, 1967 will live forever, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico are two big reasons why.


This 4-minute clip is from the Beatles official YouTube channel, so the over/under as to when it will be taken down is 36 hours based on past Reel and Rock history.